REBEL, SWEETHEART The Wallflowers
"Happy birthday to the war," Jakob Dylan sings in the opening song, "Days of Wonder." Of course, the wish is made facetiously, and the only candles he'd like to blow out are the ones that flicker with the madness and convoluted logic of the hawks who believe war is the answer.
While it's tempting to read this song and powerful companion pieces like "The Beautiful Side of Somewhere" and "God Says Nothing" as comments on our current situation, the songs don't name names. It could be the Spanish-American War as easily as Iraq. Love is eternal. Unfortunately, so is war.
The Wallflowers are now five albums into a career that burned brightest in the mid-90s with top-down summer hits like "6th Avenue Heartache" and "One Headlight." But just because a band isn't riding high on the charts doesn't mean that they're not making great music.
And Rebel, Sweetheart is full of great music. It reminds me of Darkness on the Edge of Town, in the way it takes a hard-hitting, passionate stance and wraps itself in neo-Spector production. Like Bruce Springsteen (and like his own father), Jakob Dylan writes songs that operate on several levels. For example, "God Says Nothing" slow-dances with the apocalypse, laying out its case poetically:
the world's gone underground
But it also works as a hauntingly beautiful pop song, with an unshakable melody. Similarly, "I Am a Building" is, on first listening, an anthropomorphic imagining--what if a building could talk? Set to a ska-like rhythm and another ear-grabbing melody (Dylan has an abundance on this album), it draws you in until you realize that the song could actually be about isolation and mistrust, those dual afflictions of modern times.
Produced by Brendan O'Brien (Pearl Jam, Train), Rebel, Sweetheart is both wall of sound retro and radio-ready modern, all layered guitars and explosive drums. The playing by the group is tight and tasteful. But what gives the album its heartbeat is Dylan's songwriting, crackling with a personal language that is rich in metaphor and Biblical allusion.
If you're looking for an album that tackles the big questions--God, love, death--while still giving you something to sing along to, here it is. Protest songs never sounded so good. Bill DeMain